Because this is about a mental illness, it's a lot harder to talk about than the fibro was, but I'm hopeful that this will be meaningful for a lot of people. For those of you who have similar issues, I hope this helps you to understand yourself, to know you're not alone, to find help. For those of you who don't suffer from mental illness, I hope this broadens your world view and gives you some idea of what it's like. This is very personal, so thank you for your respect!
-- via Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Though it can be hard to pin down mental illness, where and when it originates, I've had the hallmarks of an anxious personality from a young age. I recall not instances so much as feelings -- mostly a desperate need for reassurance from others. My first ballet teacher said that I was "the only three-year-old she knew who PMSed." I was a handful, certainly, though I was too innocent to know the difference at the time.
I had a very negative emotional reaction to the glorious news about sex. I went immediately from sex to rape in my head and then spent a couple of years struggling with this new knowledge. My Barbies, from then on, somehow always ended up getting raped by monsters in the stories I'd play out with them, which was terribly upsetting to me. But I didn't know how to stop it. That's the nature of obsessions -- you can't get them out of your head even as they drive you slowly more and more insane. I ended up throwing all my dolls away to get away from it. I remember Mom being upset about this because she thought it meant I was getting too old for dolls and this was a hallmark of me being all grown up (sob sob). I let her run with that because I had no way to explain that, though I would have liked to continue playing with my toys, I couldn't. It was too distressing.
In the midst of this, we moved from Albuquerque to Los Alamos and the first very public occurrence of my mental illness occurred. This happened when I went camping for the first time in my life during the summer before fourth grade. It was Girl Scout camp, supposed to be all good fun, but I already had a definite dislike of insects (and outhouses with insects/spiders in them). After dealing with that nastiness for a day, we were set to go out to some kind of magic tree you could make wishes on. Always the girl for stories, myths, and legends, I was very excited about this. The only reason I'd used the outhouse in the first place was because Mom said I couldn't go to the magic tree unless I did.
But the magic tree did not turn out to be very magical at all, for me anyway. As we stood listening to the magic tree story, a swarm of bees came down from higher in the mountains and started stinging people. I didn't get stung, but seeing everyone else freaking out made me freak out too, long after they had all calmed down and were now just trying to comfort me. But I couldn't calm down. Mom ended up driving me home early, and for the next six months or so, I was under the grip of a very powerful phobia of bees.
I had a long list of rules to protect me from them -- no wearing bright colors or black, no perfume, no going outside unless absolutely necessary and definitely not with food, stay away from all flowers. I had nightmares constantly. I hid in the coat closet at recess to avoid going outside. I flinched at flies. I began screaming during PE when we passed a bee outside, and promptly got sent to the principal and then a very unhelpful counselor, which we talked about in the last blog post. I remember the confusion on their faces, their lectures about the importance of academia and how it should outweigh silly little fears, and, especially, the way my teacher looked at me when I started screaming that day, like I was some kind of monster instead of a terrified little girl.
I got over my bee phobia somewhat accidentally, when I was forced to go outside at recess and a bee flew by, grazing me with the stinger. Exposure therapy, all in one dose. After that, I returned somewhat to normal, though I was very shaken and confused and to this day have a visceral reaction to bees that can be hard to control. That was a turning point in my life. For the first time, I'd experienced real terror and, in the midst of it, seen how helpless adults could be. I also realized, for the first time, that there was something wrong with me. But what?
One of the clearest manifestations of the OCD at that point came with my development of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), an obsessional disorder focused on body image. I became extremely distressed with the way my nose looked and began obsessively wearing makeup and trying out new facial products. I'd have dreams -- and these were good -- where my nose exploded. As the years passed, this issue worsened and "spread" across my face. At its worst, I was going to the bathroom five or six times a day to retouch my makeup (or "fix my face", as I called it), sitting in class constantly thinking about my face and when I could next do something about it, and arriving late, panicky, and in tears to classes or concerts because I couldn't get my face just right. I also developed, through this, dermatillomania, a skin-picking compulsion which later developed into a mix of that and trichotillomania, a hair-pulling compulsion I still struggle with. I spent the last three years of high school trying to train myself out of the BDD. I am, so gratefully, BDD free today, but as I said I still struggle with the offshoot compulsions.
When I hit seventh grade, a mess on so many levels, something new happened -- I fell in love. Or, what I thought was love. At one point, maybe it was; I don't know. I do know that a lot of good came out of it. I learned, from my interest in him, how to be "normal" -- dressing right, listening to pop music where I once had only known Enya, catching up on the Disney Channel stuff my peers had already begun moving on from, etc. He also gave me a lot of the skills I needed to cope with my family problems, including the strength to accept that adults really aren't always right.
Then, with all this obsessive energy whirling around me, everything crashed down. I don't know how, exactly, but I somehow decided that everything was ruined and he wasn't talking to me enough and clearly wasn't interested. This became my new obsession, and it spiraled me down into the deepest depression I've ever experienced. I was now spending hours writing everything in my diaries that I had done wrong in regards to this boy, writing out over and over again how stupid I was, how useless, how wrong. I stopped eating for a while, not because of the weight issue but because I was so upset I couldn't. I also became ragingly jealous of my best friends whenever he so much as looked at them.
But it only got worse from there. My OCD, as you might have picked up by now, revolves almost completely around an umbrella obsession with perfection, and morality is a huge part of that. Now, being very morally sound is not wrong, at all. If you don't stand up for what you believe, then what's the point of believing it, you know? But OCD does a very good job at taking things too far. In the midst of all this ultra-depressive obsessing over this boy, my brain suddenly remembered something -- that the LDS church has a rule that forbids dating before sixteen (we weren't even fourteen yet) and also doesn't look kindly on dating nonmembers in general. And this guy, who I "loved", he was about as nonmember as you could get.
Suddenly I had two obsessions warring in my mind, at total odds -- my obsession with the boy and my obsession with morality. I desperately wanted him to be in love with me, for us to have a deep and epic romance and to someday be married and then save the world from evil together, as you do. But I also knew I couldn't date him, not until I was sixteen at least, and therefore all of this obsessing I was doing over him was wrong. (I couldn't even bear to think about the fact that even then it would technically be against church guidelines, not just because of his nonmember status but because LDS teens are told that it's best not to steadily date one person until we can legally marry.) This was compounded by the fact that very few people liked this boy -- when I say he was as nonmember as you can get, I mean that on top of having questionable morals, he was a bully (though that did improve over the years).
But I couldn't make them do it. They were so much stronger than me. The only way out, I thought, was to kill myself and it was getting to the point where I was willing to do just that if it would free me. Really, though, I didn't want to die. So one night I broke down, furiously crying, and screamed out to God, though unsure if he was actually going to help me given his apparent part in this problem, that I couldn't take this anymore and I couldn't choose either side and if he didn't help me I was going to take my own life.
I had a very powerful spiritual experience at that moment that I won't detail, but in basis, I was strongly comforted and in that, found a reason to keep going. It wasn't easy. The obsessions continued to fight it out in my head for some time. There were two other events I can think of that ended up calming them down. One was that my history teacher took me aside to say that he had read my free writes for class, which included the same depressive obsessing that was in the rest of my diaries, and he was terribly concerned for me. I was so ashamed I couldn't look him in the eye for the rest of the year, but I did start taking steps to separate myself from some people who had been, unintentionally, encouraging my obsessions and otherwise making me feel insecure. The second was that, as ninth grade began, the boy I was "in love" with moved away for a year.
I fought a lot, that year, with my previously mentioned BDD-esque weight issues. I obsessed a lot with counting calories and especially with exercising -- I remember multiple times during the year sitting in class and just about exploding with the need to go outside right then and run on the track. I also could only wear loose clothing that year because of this conception I had of my stomach being large. I'll tell you right now, one of the only reasons I got through the year was because of Harry Potter. It gave me a positive outlet for my obsessional energy that I'm terribly grateful for -- stories and fandoms have, since then, been a constant force for carrying me through in a similar way. Finally, over the summer, I took an online health class that gave me a wake-up call to the extent of my obsession with this weight stuff.
So I then spent the next three years trying to fix myself as the OCD manifested itself in my life in smaller, constant ways, though I didn't know still what all was wrong with me. My main idea was that I had really bad self-confidence issues, which isn't totally off seeing as the OCD focuses on my imperfections. But without knowing the real problem, there was only so much I could do. I got a hold on myself for a while, certainly, and I did manage to overcome my BDD. But as I said before, the BDD ended up altering into the trichotillmania/dermatillomania mix that caused many problems later. I also developed full-blown fibromyalgia during this time, which was not a happy surprise.
I was wearily grateful to be graduating from high school and moving onto college at that point, and for a while, yes, college was very good for me. I even went into temporary remission from my fibromyalgia. But that could only last so long, and after a terrifying incident of sexual harassment and worsening problems in my family, the OCD came crashing back in, my first of the two "breakdowns" I talk about in reference to my diagnosis. It was mild compared to what had happened before in my life and what would happen later, but it was striking after me having done so well for six months. I was constantly crying and panicking over stupid things, most related to guys, dating, and sexism. I had to keep leaving classes to get a hold on myself. Finally I started counseling, as detailed in the last post, and it got me through to the summer, at which point breakdown number two happened, for the same basic reason: another instance of sexual harassment combined with more family issues.
The second breakdown was much worse, probably the worst time I've had with the OCD after what I experienced in eighth grade, though it might be equal with the bee phobia episode. In this period, I developed a kind of agoraphobia/social phobia that got to the point where I had nausea-stricken panic attacks every time I left the house. So, for two weeks in the middle of summer, I didn't leave the house. In the midst of this, my trichotillomania issue worsened to the point where I was now ripping my skin open with tweezers, small but deep wounds that left scars all over my chest and, to a lesser extent, my face and arms. I knew I needed help, and after my positive experience with the ASU counselor, I was much more willing to get it -- but I had no resources. I had to make it to BYU-I, where they would have free, high-quality counseling available to me.
After that, though, things began looking up. I got a lot of help from the BYU-I counselor for dealing with my OCD, largely because knowing what it is and being able to label it makes all the difference. I also named my OCD "Codi", as shown in this post (which inspired SAMMI), to help me distinguish between obsessive thoughts and my own feelings.
I returned home early for multiple reasons, the OCD being one. There, with a new counselor, I had to deal with the OCD on an even deeper level, at which point I sorted out the different "levels" the OCD takes. As opposed to in school, where my problems are generally minor, at home I'm facing some very serious problems that can make legitimate feelings hard to distinguish from OCD ones. So I learned to recognize when Codi is (Level 1) acting in my favor to bolster me in standing up against a real problem that I care about, (Level 2) acting in my favor but going over the top and making it difficult for me to control myself or deal with the situation, or (Level 3) dragging me totally down with thoughts about my complete lack of perfection. I also used my new knowledge of my situation to better prepare myself for my return to BYU-I, which included a track change and getting an emotional support animal, Spartacus the kitty cat.
Now, after much help from the two counselors, home and school, I have the OCD under relative control. I still relapse once in a while, of course. It's hard to fight an enemy in your head. But I've developed the tools and understanding I need to deal with life as an OCD patient and that has made all the difference. I am incredibly grateful for the diagnosis, the people who have helped me, and the things I know now and I hope to pass this along to anyone who needs it. If any of this sounds familiar to you, please seek out help. Actually, if any of you suspect at all that there's something not right with the way you're feeling and thinking, whether it's related to this or not, get help. I can't even begin to express how much I wish I'd done so back when things first started feeling wrong. Knowing is so much help.
And to those of you who haven't had to deal with stuff like this--I hope this has helped you understand some. I know it's hard. Just remember to keep an open mind when it comes to mental illness and to be sympathetic, all right?
Images via hellogiggles.com, education.rec.ri.cmu.edu, Wikipedia, crossfitregeneration.com, deviantART, and blog.enroll.com.